If you are based in Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial during your stay in the Dominican Republic, it is easy to explore the historical treasures of the first colonial city in the new world. Only eleven square blocks, it’s feasible to see all of the old town’s highlights in one full day.
As a seven-month pregnant lady with swollen feet, I had to break up the itinerary into two days. However you decide to do it, there are definitely certain stops that warrant a longer visit, whereas others can be skimmed over or skipped completely (in my opinion).
A few recommendations to start:
1) Wear walking/athletic shoes! I made the mistake of wearing sandals with no arch support or cushion, and I swear my feet almost exploded.
2) Bring plenty of water or plan on buying some in one of the little snack stands along the way. Most places will accept USD (a little less than $1.00 for a bottle).
3) It’s likely going to be HOT… It was very humid and warm in April, so depending on what time of year you’re there, you may want a small towel to mitigate the perspiration. Seriously.
4) Wear sunscreen! Otherwise, you will get sunburned. I had it on my face, but not on other parts, which got singed.
5) The guidebooks and signage will warn you that short pants (shorts) and tank tops (and sometimes flip flops) are prohibited in churches and cathedrals. Reading about this, I prepared by wearing a flowy strapless, long dress. I also brought a white linen shirt to cover my shoulders. Fellas, you may be stuck wearing pants, although long shorts (past your knees) may work?
I noticed that a good many tourists were in shorts and tank tops and didn’t seem to be turned away form entering the places of worship. However, it’s always a good idea to show respect in another culture. You never know, you may be the one person they pick on!
6) Plan on spending a longer time at some stops than you would expect. Also plan on stops for snacking/eating, drinking and relaxing (especially if it’s really hot). Enjoy yourself, and don’t rush it!
Now, let’s go for a walk!
Borrowing Lonely Planet’s walking tour from their Dominican Republic and Haiti guidebook, you’ll notice that I started at stop 8 counting down to 1, then jumped to 13 and walked up to 21. Lastly, I hit 12 through 8 (backwards) to my hotel. It doesn’t really matter which direction you take. I started at a point close to my hotel.
I’ve noted when I thought each site was worth a Drive by (10 minutes of photo taking and reading about significance of the site), to Skip entirely or to Stay a while (about an hour, maybe longer). Most of the stops are “drive bys,” warranting a short stop and photo opp, as you will notice. There are about eight spots worth spending a little extra time, in my opinion.
Stop 1 (Drive by)– Start in Parque Duarte, taking in the flowering bougainvillea and other blossoms sprinkled around the colonial buildings.
The first historic site on the walk is Capilla de la Tercera Orden Dominicana. With its beautiful baroque façade, it is the only fully intact colonial structure that remains in the city. It is the office of the archbishop of Santo Domingo and therefore not open to the public. So snap some shots and move along.
Stop 2 (Drive by)– Charles V built the Convento de la Orden de los Predicadores in 1510. It’s the first convent of the Dominican order in the new world. Father Bartolomé chronicled the Spanish atrocities against the indigenous peoples here.
According to LP, there are interior features worth your gander, such as stone zodiac wheel carved in to the chapel’s vault depicting both mythological and astrological images. Paintings of religious figures, such as Pope Saint Pius V, adorn the walls.
When I walked by, the interior was closed for an event; school children were singing.
I skipped Centro Cultural Español in the interest of time. Casa de Teatro is worth a drive by to pop in and see the set up. You can check the schedule to see if there is a show one night while you’re in town.
Stop 3 (Stay a while)– Museo de la Familia Dominica
Writer Francisco Tostado’s 16th century home is worth a visit, although it was my least favorite historical museum on the walking tour. Its double Gothic window over the front door is “the only one of its kind in the Americas. ” The rooms of the home are recreated with 19th century furnishings. Tours are available in English (counter to what Lonely Planet says).
Stop 4 (Drive by)– Another first, the Iglesia de Santa Clara was the premier nunnery in the new world, built in 1552. The church is simple and discreet (i.e. not much to look at), but it’s significance is worth a stop.
Stop 5 (Drive by)– Larimar Museum
Larimar is a beautiful blue, volcanic stone (when polished). I breezed through the museum quickly. If you are a mineral enthusiast, it might be worth your time. For me, it was a good air conditioning and bathroom break. The gift shop dominates the lower level, where you can buy any style of finished jewelry pieces made of the azure stone.
Stop 6 (Stay a while) – Catedral Primada de América
When you reach Catedral Primada de América, take a load off and enjoy the vaulted Gothic ceilings, Romanesque arches and baroque ornamentation in the comfort of blasting air condition. Since numerous architects worked on the cathedral, there are various interior structural styles.
Christopher Columbus’s son Diego lay the fist stone of the cathedral in 1514, but construction actually began in 1521 with the arrival of the first Bishop Alejandro Geraldini.
The cathedral is not technically the first one built in the new world, as one in Mexico City was constructed between 1524 and 1532, but it was knocked down in 1573 and replaced by Catedral Metropolitano. Therefore it can be said that the cathedral in Santo Domingo is the oldest functioning cathedral in the new world.
Apparently, the great pirate Drake and his crew did quite a number on the basilica back in 1586, when they used the cathedral as their headquarters during their assault on the city. They stole anything that was moveable and vandalized everything else. Most of what you see in today’s interior has since been restored.
Make sure you spend time perusing all 14 of the interior chapels. They, along with the lofty vaulted ceilings and Romanesque arches, are the most impressive features in the basilica. It’s nice to just relax in a pew with your camera, taking in the awesomeness, while allowing the frigid air to cool down your overheated extremities.
Stop 7 (Stay a while) – Exiting the cathedral, you’ll find yourself in the middle of Parque Cólon, a pretty, historic park surrounding a statue of Christopher Columbus. Locals and tourists mill about.
The resident artist, who always seems to be on the same bench, is out painting every day. If you need a refreshment, grab a table at one of the al fresco restaurants, like El Conde.
Stop 8– (Stay a while) Fortaleza Ozama
Fortaleza Ozama is the oldest military structure in the new world!!! Such things really impress me….. I loved seeing Castilo San Felipe del Morro in Old San Juan (Puerto Rico) and Fort San Lorenzo in Panama Viejo, but to see the oldest one this side of the Atlantic? That’s special.
Fray Nicolás de Ovando strategically chose the site of the fort at the confluence of Río Ozama and the Caribbean. Master builder Gómez García Varela directed the fort’s construction, which began in 1502, and continued in stages over the next two centuries.
Since the DR has seen many occupiers over the years, the fort has flown the flag of Spain, France, England, Haiti, Gran Columbia, the U.S. and the DR.
The fort has only been open for public viewing since the 1970s. Prior to this, it was a military base and prison.
Along the river, two rows of cannons, one dating from 1570 and the second added in the mid-1600s, served as a first line of defense for the city’s port.
Give in to the temptation to sit atop the Tower of Homage for a while, taking in the Caribbean breeze and the site of the palm-fringed coast surrounding a picturesque lighthouse. In Santo Domingo’s mid-day, stifling heat, this may be your only reprieve!
Stop 9 (Drive by)– Hostal Nicolás de Ovando & Casa de Francia
The Casa de Francia, like its name suggests, is the French Embassy. However, the history of the building holds intrigue. Built in the early 16th century as a residence for Hernán Cortés, it is believed that this is where he planned his brutal and triumphant expedition to conquer central Mexico’s Aztecs.
The house was a residence for several centuries, and it has also functioned as Santo Domingo’s National Bank, a civil courthouse and the headquarters of the Dominican IRS.
Across the street, Governor Nicolás de Ovando’s Gothic residence, built in 1509, is now the Sofitel Hotel. In addition to selecting Fort Ozama’s site, he is famous for ordering Santo Domingo to be rebuilt on the west bank of the Río Ozama after a hurricane destroyed the colony.
Stop 10 (Drive by)– The Panteón Nacional has gone through many identity changes over the years. Originally built as a Jesuit church in 1747, it later became a tobacco warehouse and then a theater before dictator Trujillo restored the building to its current state in 1958.
Today, the Panteón Nacional is a grand crypt, housing the remains of prominent people behind two marble walls. An armed soldier always stands at attention to guard the mausoleum’s entrance. They even perform a changing of the guard type ritual, which the soldiers take very seriously.
Stop 11 (Drive by)– Francisco de Avila built Capilla de nuestra señora de los Remedios in the early 16th century. The Gothic chapel was intended to be a private family mausoleum. Early settlers attended Mass here under the barrel-vaulted ceiling.
Stop 12 (Stay a while) – One of Zona Colonial’s highlights, the Museo de las Casas Reales is worth at least an hour visit. The Renaissance-style building, constructed in the 16th century, is a site to behold. Notice the porous stone and brick crown moulding.
The building was the seat of the Spanish authority for the whole Caribbean region, housing the Royal Court and Governor’s office. Now, this museum showcases fabulous colonial-era objects, including treasures recovered from sunken Spanish galleons, antique weaponry, Taino artifacts, and period furnishings.
There are some amazing old maps showing voyages of European conquistadors and explorers.
The resident peacock added colorful flare to the inner courtyard.
Stop 13 (Stay a while)– Walking through the breezy open-air hallways and rooms of Diego Columbus’s house, you’re almost able to imagine what life was like on the island in the 16th century. Museo Alcázar de Colón is easily a highlight (if not the highlight) of the Zona Colonial tour (next to Casa Reales).
This architectural gem, designed in the Gothic-Mudéjar transitional style, is Columbus’s son Diego’s home. He lived here in the early 16h century with his wife Doña María de Toledo. They left their home to relatives when they were recalled to Spain in 1523, whom occupied the residence for about a century.
It later became a prison and then a warehouse before being completely abandoned. In 1775, it was the unofficial city dump (Can you imagine? This beautiful building!) Only two walls were left standing by late 1800. The current structure is a result of three restorations in 1957, 1972, and 1992.
The reconstruction was closely monitored to adhere to correct historical authenticity. Today it houses pieces that belonged to the Columbus family, including beautifully wood-carved canopy beds and dining room furniture.
Stop 14 (Stay a while) – The lovely, open Plaza España, in front of the Alcázar de Colón, is lined with restaurants like the popular Pat’e Palo (Peg Leg). This is the spot for dinner and drinks at an outside table around sunset. The buildings that house the restaurants were at one point warehouses during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Stop 15 (Stay a while)– Calle El Conde is Zona Colonial’s busy pedestrian street. The commercial walkway, lined with cafes, souvenir shops, painting stands, and even a Payless stretches from the cathedral to the Parque Independencia. Large signs explain historical aspects of the street and city about every block or so.
Stop 16 (Drive by)– The Puerta de Conde (Gate of the Count) is the site of significant defensive stands against invaders and therefor a symbol of Dominican patriotism. First, the Count of Peñalba led the defense against 13,000 invading British troops at this spot in 1655.
Again in 1844, the Dominicans took a stand here against invaders, this time in a bloodless coup to overthrow occupying Haitians, resulting in the creation of an independent Dominican Republic. The very first Dominican flag was raised atop this gate.
Stop 17 (Drive by or skip)– Just west of the Count’s Gate is the Parque Independencia, where the Altar de la Patria resides. This mausoleum holds the remains of three national heroes: Francisco del Rosario Sánchez, Juan Pablo Duarte, and Ramón Matías Mella.
The entrance to the park seemed closed when I arrived. The intersection was congested and busy, so I decided not to pursue it any further. I can’t speak definitively about whether it’s worth a visit.
Stop 18 (Drive by but go inside)– Iglesia de la Regina Angelorum
When I stopped in this church, there was a wedding rehearsal under way, so I wasn’t able to get close to the elaborate 18th century baroque altar, one of the features it is known for. I did catch a glimpse of the imposing façade, though. The church was built at the end of the 16th century with funds from a woman’s entire fortune, which she dedicated to the cloistered Dominican Sisters.
In total, I spent about three days exploring Zona Colonial. I could have stayed longer, peeking in to little patios tucked away on side streets. For those short on time, the highlights of the colonial city could easily be seen in one (very full) day as well.